Column: Workers' Comp

The Life Lesson of Tom Petty

By: | March 5, 2018

Roberto Ceniceros is a retired senior editor of Risk & Insurance® and the former chair of the National Workers' Compensation and Disability Conference® & Expo. Read more of his columns and features.

The concoction of prescription pills that contributed to rock musician Tom Petty’s overdose death mirrors the list of pharmaceuticals prescribed too often to injured workers.

The parallels reach beyond the combination of opioids, anti-depressants, anti-anxiety pills and other prescription drugs that have killed workers’ compensation claimants.

As one wise risk manager told me, “When you are dealing with injured workers, you are dealing with human beings, and there is nothing more fragile than humans.”

I suspect that is one reason workers’ comp increasingly embraces the idea that addressing psychosocial factors, and not just treating an injury’s physical manifestations, produces better outcomes for addressing pain and returning injured workers to the job.

Even the super successful, like the guy whose work topped music charts and gave us “I Won’t Back Down”  — a song that helped our nation stand strong after 9/11 — had human frailties.

He was the quintessential American success story, overcoming adversity and meager beginnings, first by earning money as a teenager performing with hometown rock bands, then by sticking to a plan, working it and taking risks to become wildly successful.

It ended with the accidental overdose of drugs his family said he consumed for hip-fracture pain and other ailments he suffered while on a 53-date concert tour.

Petty’s successes ran beyond the talent required to create numerous hits. He excelled at the problematic task of holding together a band over decades of long nights in the studio and long days on the road.

As one wise risk manager told me, “When you are dealing with injured workers, you are dealing with human beings, and there is nothing more fragile than humans.”

He made the right calls on decisions concerning band personnel and replacing record producers. He was a shrewd businessman who fought the powerful music industry, winning contract litigation to gain control over his creative direction and music rights.

His talent and drive garnered the admiration of greats like Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison and George Harrison who, with him, created the successful Traveling Wilburys project.

Unfortunately, like other humans, including injured workers, he carried emotional and mental health challenges.

Beatings from a father who didn’t like his rebellious streak, depression and heroin addiction are part of Petty’s history. I admired him not only for his work ethic but for his willingness to discuss those parts of his history.

Plenty of injured employees carry equally challenging emotional and mental health histories. They carry them into treatment and they mix dangerously with opioid pain medications — especially when combined with other prescriptions.

Even though much work remains, the workers’ comp industry has outpaced much of the nation in finding solutions for such challenges.

That’s good because emotional and mental health challenges will always accompany many injured workers, even those who are driven and succeed at their work. &

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